There was a fight about money after my father’s funeral, though money played no part. The details don’t matter. Proximity: same car, same hotel, same any building and we erupt. It would have been a ruckus except our husbands intervened. My sister pushed a finger at my chest. Ghosts burned through me. We could have been scrambling over sharp-edged furniture into the emergency room.
The argument was predictable, something to schedule for a convenient time. A time free of hot flashes and cold stares. After forty years of not settling things, the fracas was expected, even anticipated. Not an emergency.
I’m very picky about my okra. So when my daughter tells me to keep what I touch at the Farmer’s Market, I tell her she’s crazy. I will stay picky. The only way to know okra’s good is to touch. Some big ones have the velvety feel of tender youth. Some small ones are hard and almost prickly on the fingers. They are okay in soup or gumbo. But not dipped in batter and fried in the wok.
People look, pull up masks, move. I know, virus. But nobody eats okra raw.
College educated daughter. They don’t teach cooking there.
After a harrowing journey over steep gravel roads, after morning meditation sessions and before soaking in natural hot springs, you devoured Tassajara bread for breakfast. The cookbook made its way to your kitchen, instructing you in the art of turning gloppy sponge into sweet wheat loaves. Mmm… scrumptious with butter, jam and dark roast coffee.
It’s been a long journey enriched by frequent meanderings and yeasty experiences. Learning that satisfaction lies in a perfect translucent stretch of the dough that proves the kneading is done. Bread has secrets. It takes time. Like a good friend, bread must be patiently tended
For the past month, a Tarot card that means reprieve has consistently found its way into my weekly story prompt. Sometimes it defines the question. Sometimes it’s the unknown quantity that might determine the outcome. Either way, reprieve is in the cards.
I find this comforting. Whether a reprieve from a broken Washington, a reprieve through self-knowledge or a reprieve via creative insight, all of it seems good. And I see this theme cropping up in places besides my Celtic Cross spreads. My writing group met on Zoom this week. We are normally very disciplined, sticking to the text of the pieces we are discussing, offering useful comments about improving our stories. This week, the sense of loss evoked in the writing provoked a different response that reverberated through the group.
I find myself wondering how much of it was the fictional stories we reviewed and how much of it was the proximity of loss all around us that bled into our comments. In e-mails after the group, one member revealed that a family member had died of the virus. Another commented that we may need to be prepared for more losses as this pandemic runs its course. And though it is unusual to discuss personal issues in our group, the underlying impetus for much writing is personal loss.
My husband tells a story that may be germane here. A friend of his from college, an English major, saw his first snow during his freshman year at an Eastern college. They were walking across campus, white flakes drifting into piles of white flakes. The African student said, “You know that snow means death.” Such a normal phenomenon across most of the United States is a literary symbol which becomes potent when it overcomes the barriers that we erect against it. Heated buildings, roaring fires, protective snow gear, all the ways that man overcomes nature. Until, as in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, nature overcomes man.
As a culture, we have celebrated rugged individualism. We’ve gone into the wilderness, positive that we would return, sure of being protected from the worst by our pluck, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and free market economy. But some things require a group and to be a group, we need to pull together. We need to listen to the advice of people who know more than we do. That means finding some other song to sing besides America First.
We do need America to come together, but that’s not enough. The virus is here. The means to fight it are spread around the world. Isolation is the first defense. But cooperation can’t be far behind or we risk freezing to death as a result of our own stubborn denial regarding the risks. And unlike a man freezing in the wild, we will take others with us if we can’t admit that we need each other.
There are two versions of To Build a Fire. In one version, the protagonist dies. In the other, he sustains frostbite and becomes a wiser person. We could use a little wisdom as we fight our battle with nature. Reprieve is in the cards, the question is how we go about making that happen and how much damage we sustain before the pandemic is over.
A story is a cocoon from which to see the world. It might be exciting. It might be pointed. It might give a glimpse into another world or a look at another side of this one. It might use flowing language, plain language, or the kind of terse language that cuts to the quick, leaving the reader wounded by a lightning strike aha. Sometimes the picture says more than the words. Sometimes the words create a picture. There are so many possibilities. Here’s hoping that in 2020 we can find respect for the story no matter who tells it.
Wishing all a happy and productive year in 2020. In case you didn’t see this New York Times Op Ed, I’ll pass it on as a follow up to something I wrote after the fire. Hoping for good news about the cathedral next year.
There Will Be No Christmas at Notre-Dame December 24, 2019 New York Times
His accent moved around a lot, a swampy Southern drawl that sped up to nail a point. It was all factual– temperature, weather, numbers, deals notched up on a piece of wood like hunting prizes. If he had talked about bagging a couple of ducks, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
The way he talks makes me wonder if anyone is on the other end. Self talk, tons, clothed in cliched business garb.
Then, he’s staring straight through me, absorbed in his own thoughts. His gaze is steely, purposeful, crushing. Competition and victory are the only things that matter to him.
Dark clouds drift to the west, bearing a load of rain drops on the wind. There was a storm earlier. The water pounded the bay in sheets, splashing and sparkling against the gulf, moving in a quiet pattern of ripples. Light and dark shadows reflected across the shallow bottom of a sandy shoal. While it rained, the birds were quiet, the trees were still, it seemed as if the whole of nature’s shop had closed up to watch for the rainbow. When the sky cleared, an osprey was the first one out, soaring and diving, making up for lost time.
The latticed wings resembled a ladder. Like a red-orange crayon they drew a line in the sky, a purposeful gash that attracted attention to the one broken stem in a field of reeds where it landed. The dragonfly held its position the way that top predators dominate a food chain. I snapped one picture after another, directing the lens towards its complex eyes. Imagine one insect seen through the lens of a camera and hundreds of moving human beings seen through a multifaceted instrument like the one the dragonfly projects from the slim taper of its body. Would you stay?